Sam Mellinger

Ventura represents Royals’ future, which appropriately is unknown

Updated: 2013-09-17T22:26:07Z

By Sam Mellinger

The Kansas City Star

One more piece of the Royals’ future is turning into one more piece of the Royals’ present, and it’s fitting that nobody knows how this will go. Yordano Ventura is 180 pounds of potential. He is a smiling, shy, sometimes-high-strung 23-year-old with a flaming baseball tattooed on his right arm and a 100-mph fastball that explodes out of that right hand.

He will make a much-anticipated big-league debut on Tuesday — in the last two weeks of the Royals’ most serious playoff push in a generation — and, truly, nobody knows what to expect.

One Royals official said Monday that he wouldn’t be surprised if Ventura dominated and he wouldn’t be surprised if the bullpen got busy early. A scout-type said Ventura has the stuff to make big-league hitters look silly and enough unknowns that he could struggle.

Remember Danny Duffy, amped up, trying to throw 200 mph and needing 93 pitches to get eight outs in his first game back from Tommy John surgery? Ventura could very well do the same thing, or he could do what Duffy did in his second start: six shutout innings with just one hit surrendered.

Even manager Ned Yost referenced “the intrigue” when talking about the most electric pitching prospect to debut with the Royals since Zack Greinke.

For a front office obsessed with starting pitchers and homegrown stars, Ventura is the personification of what the Royals are trying to do.

He will shape so much of their future, a potential top-of-the-rotation starter who could be the pitching face of a vastly improved international scouting program currently best represented by catcher Sal Perez.

Of course, the fact that he is even here in Kansas City at the moment should serve as a reminder about the old baseball line about how pitching prospects will break your heart. He is taking Duffy’s turn in the rotation, the lefty sitting out at least a second consecutive start because of elbow inflammation. Duffy was Ventura only a few years ago — nasty stuff, occasional trouble harnessing it and a future that left baseball men dreaming.

Then Duffy walked 51 in 1051/3 innings as a rookie, injured his elbow in his second year and is still mostly intrigue today.

So these are just visions, not predictions, but it’s easy to think of the Rays’ habit of promoting a high-ceiling pitching prospect late in a season, giving him a glimpse of meaningful baseball and watching him grow.

Ventura has it in him, too. His fastball is usually between 93 and 100 mph, with his best pitches around 96 — that’s when the ball takes a late dive into the hands of right-handed hitters, often turning their bats into useless props.

This is the pitcher that Royals farm director J.J. Picollo has called “critical if we’re going to be a contender.” Teams covet top-shelf starting pitchers above most everything else, and with the nucleus of young position players already in place, Ventura is the Royals’ biggest potential in-house boost.

The baseball industry’s long-term view of the Royals remains optimistic, regardless of how this season ends. But the reality is that Ervin Santana will be the game’s best free-agent starting pitcher, which is a wonderful way to get overpaid.

Even if you assume long-term health and success for Duffy, the Royals will need starting pitching.

Which is why Ventura is so important, so intriguing.

He’s struck out 455 batters in 4151/3 innings, including 155 in 1342/3 this year. There are some rough edges to smooth, and not just with command of his pitches. A few weeks ago, he overslept on the day of a scheduled start for Class AAA Omaha, showing up less than an hour before the game — long after the team decided to skip him.

A club official characterized it as “an innocent mistake,” but it’s an unnecessary indication of the uncertain world of pitching prospects.

The Royals’ hope has always been for Ventura to be promoted from the minors only once. They want him to contribute, not just participate, and soon enough they want him joined by Kyle Zimmer — whom some scouts think more of than Ventura.

But for now, Ventura is the one transitioning from future to present. Ventura is the one with the intrigue, the one with the opportunity to excite or disappoint. A chunk of the Royals’ success rests with the skinny young man with the 100-mph fastball.

Appropriately, nobody is sure what will happen.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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